Sports

Nylander’s return provides a spark to the already red-hot Leafs

On July 1, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made the biggest splash in free agency. He signed five-time All-Star and former New York Islanders captain John Tavares to a seven-year deal worth $77 million. This long-term deal appeared to be the last piece of the puzzle in Toronto’s long, arduous rebuild. This team was ready to seriously contend with the league’s powerhouses for hockey’s ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup. It looked like everything fell into place for a team that has suffered a half-century’s worth of pain, agony, defeat and playing well below the fans’ and the media’s expectations.

But then, a new issue emerged. One of the Leafs’ brightest young stars, William Nylander, became a restricted free agent at the end of the season. He went unsigned throughout the summer, seeking a long-term extension. As a result, Nylander did not attend the team’s training camp. A buzz around the city of Toronto started to spread, due to the Maple Leafs beginning the season without Nylander; the two could not come to an agreement beforehand.

The 22-year old forward proved to be a valuable piece of Toronto’s core that made the postseason the past two years. He registered consecutive 61-point seasons and missed just one game in that span. Surely, Dubas would find a way to get him signed. But the Leafs had to play without him, amid ongoing back-and-forth negotiations.

Nylander used Boston Bruins’ forward David Pastrnak’s six-year contract worth $6.7 million annually as a baseline, while also citing Edmonton Oilers’ forward Leon Draisaitl’s eight-year contract worth $8.5 million annually. Using these two made negotiations more and more difficult, as the Leafs were set on giving Nylander just under $7 million annually for a potentially long-term deal. At one point, Nylander’s agent sought an annual value of $8 million for his client.

No matter what would happen, a deal must have been signed by Dec. 1, or Nylander would not have been eligible to play in the NHL for the entire 2018-19 season. Toronto also looked for any potential trade suitors. If they could not get Nylander signed, they could use him as trade bait to bolster the defensive core.

While Nylander remained in Europe, skating in Sweden and Austria and keeping himself in shape, the Leafs had to play on.

Led by a stacked group of forwards, including Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen and Patrick Marleau, the Leafs jumped out to an 8-3-0 record to start the year. Despite their scoring capabilities, the defense had a few serious cracks, and goaltender Frederik Andersen showed signs of being overused last season.

Matthews also suffered a shoulder injury on Oct. 27 against the Winnipeg Jets that landed him a four-to-six-week absence. Following, signing Nylander became a priority. It got to the players, head coach Mike Babcock and the front office. Matthews ended up missing 14 games with his injury, but Toronto managed to stay hot, going 9-5-0 in those games. When Matthews returned to the lineup, he picked up right where he left off. He scored in his first six games of the season, registering 10 goals during that span, and added three more in Toronto’s past two games.

As Dec. 1 rapidly approached, the Leafs had little time to get a deal done with Nylander. Toronto had a game that evening against the Minnesota Wild. Clearly, that was secondary to the drama off the ice.

The months-long staring contest between Nylander and the Maple Leafs was coming down to the wire. It appeared that the worst-case scenario — for player, for team, for fans — could be realized in the final minutes.

At exactly 5 p.m. on Dec. 1, official word came down from the Maple Leafs.

Nylander was back on a six-year contract extension.

There was a “pending league approval” caveat, but any worries over whether the contract made it to the desk in the NHL office in time was soothed when the details of the agreement started to leak through.

The contract was officially filed at 4:55 p.m., or five minutes before Nylander’s NHL season was history.

Nylander will earn a little over $45 million over the life of the contract and it will cost the Maple Leafs $10.2 million on the salary cap for the remainder of this season, and about $6.9 million in seasons two through six.

The deal was done, and a massive weight was lifted off Dubas’ shoulders. The Leafs got back one of their star forwards.

Now that Nylander was signed, he’s now equipped to serve as bait if the time comes for the Leafs to jump at a chance to fill an area of weakness. Moving him before the contract was brokered would have been the worst move possible.

Fortunately for Nylander, obvious deficiencies are few and far between for the Leafs, who have become an even greater terror in the Eastern Conference.

Nylander returns to a Leafs team operating in the top five in goals scored and goals allowed, which has won 19 of its first 27 games without the profitable partnership he formed over the last two seasons with Matthews.

With Nylander and Matthews on one line, Tavares and Marner on another and with Kadri having talent at his wings, the Leafs have maybe the most talented forward group in the NHL and still reserve the right to add help at the deadline.

They are legitimate Stanley Cup threats this season, and they ensured that Nylander’s extension won’t undo their progress this season or be the one that sabotages their challenges in the seasons to come.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns for the Maple Leafs, however. Matthews and Marner, the other two young stars on this team, will also be restricted free agents after this season. With their entry-level contracts expiring, they will also seek massive long-term deals.

There is a likely chance that Dubas will have to go through more laborious negotiations, which will not get any easier. In fact, the entire scope of restricted free agents around the NHL will change. There is a plethora of RFAs that will see their entry-level contracts expire at the end of the season. Some of these names include Matthews, Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Matthew Tkachuk, Kyle Connor, Sebastian Aho and Brock Boeser. All these players have proven to be stars in this league and will look to be rewarded with a hefty payday, especially with the NHL’s salary cap set to increase from $79.4 million to $85 million.

Nylander’s holdout and eventual signing will certainly impact how these players will approach their first opportunity at getting a lucrative contract.

As for the Maple Leafs, they can shift their focus back to playing hockey with their full core back intact. When the time comes to worry about more long-term negotiations, the Toronto media will have more mouthwatering drama to cover. For now, Toronto’s media is better off covering the on-ice performance of the team that many project to be crowned Stanley Cup champions.

December 10, 2018

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Felix Malamud


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